When I was still a teeny tiny little critter a rain storm swept over the tundra where I lived in a village of only 300 people with no roads in or out. I ran into my friends house to escape the rain and soon were were listening to his mother tell us the tale of two friends who went into the long grass near the river, there they smelled something delicious cooking. Lured by the smell they soon met an old lady… who as you can guess turned out to be a witch. Although in this version of the story one of the two friends dies the other manages to escape across a river with the help of a crane.
Hansel and Gretel were also lured by food to fall into a witches trap and at the end of their story they needed to ride on the back of a bird to escape as well.
Sure we can easily just chalk these stories to the need for cautionary tales, and indeed the Yupik people I grew up with loved to scare their children into avoiding doing dangerous things. (Given how dangerous the tundra was if we hadn’t been at least a little afraid of it none of us would have survived). But I think that there’s a lot more to these stories than that.
A Spirit Journey through the land of the dead
When they are returning home Hansel and Gretel have to ride on a duck over some water to get out of the woods. It was common for the shamans, the witches and the cunning to need to ride on ducks, swans or geese to get into and out of the spirit world, especially the land of the dead. Just as it was common for them to be led in the spirit world by a spirit guide in the form of a white bird, just as Hansel and Gretel were lead through the to the the witches house. Forests themselves were often considered such spirit worlds, or used to represent them in old stories.
It seems extremely unlikely that it is simply coincidence that figures so similar to spirit guides in the land of the dead are present in this story about two children who are starving and on the cusp of death. Indeed it’s quite possible that the white bird and the duck represent the fact that Hansel and Gretel are dead, that like so many shamans before them they must enter the realm of the dead, and find their way back, that is defeat the witch and ride the duck back to the world of the living in order to fulfill their magical, shamanistic calling.
No shaman, no person really enters the spirit world only once, however, rather they tend to go back into the spirit world over and over again, and Hansel and Gretel may go back into the spirit world to save the souls of other children who are on the cusp of death, may journey back to fight the evil spirits which are causing the famine, to negotiate with the rain spirits, etc.
In addition to the shamanistic elements it’s also interesting to note that when Hansel and Gretel return home their mother has already starved to death.
This is interesting because birds also often represented the spirits of the dead. It may be than that the children, nearly dead went on a spirit journey and were lead by their mothers dead spirit to the place where their mother now resided in the woods. For the undead went after their own family members first…
A mother becomes a spirit of the dead and lures their children into the land of the dead in order to try to devour them…
A girls brother dies and she must enter the realm of the dead to free him from the evil beings which now hold him in their clutches
Two children die, but manage to escape the land of the dead and so can now enter the land of the dead to free others.